History of the Greco-Persian Conflicts – Part 4

Mycale & Sestos

While Pausanias started his march towards Plataea, another Greek force was to embark of a great voyage that would lead them far to the east in Persian held territory. In the August of 479 BC the Spartan co-ruler Leotychidas led the Greek allied navy along side the politician Xanthippus whom of which led the Athenian contingent, planning to intercept the Persian navy in an attempt to stop future invasions.

The allied fleet under Leotychidas was stationed on the island of Demos and was joined by Xanthippus around the time the battle in Plataea had started. With the addition of the Athenian ships, the navy was in a fairly decent numerical position having somewhere between 150-200 ships. Though the Persians out numbered them with 300 vessels, neither side were particularly keen on engaging one another, being unwilling to risk a major battle.

The Persian fleet was stationed at the island of Samos. Taking advantage of the disarray within the empire, a group of Greeks from Samos made there way to Demos in order to speak to the leaders of the allied navy. They claimed the people of Samos and all of Ionia were once again ready to revolt. They also pointed out that the Persian moral was at an all time low and that now would likely be the best time to strike.

After some consideration, it was decided. The allied ships set sail and made their war for Samos. Not believing they could defeat the Greek allies in a naval battle, upon hearing of their aproach, the Persians decided to retreat from the island to the Ionian mainland. The Persians opted to fight on land as there was a significant force in Ionia left by Xerxes which could reinforce them.

The Persians beached their ships below the slopes of mount Mycale and with the help of the large army left by Xerxes, began fortifying their position building an impressive base camp. Large walls of rock and tree trunks surrounded this camp, the walls went out into the sea, preventing any chance of a naval engagement.

The Greeks reached Samos in late August 479 BC with no Persian vessels to greet them. Unsure what to do, they made their way for the Ionian mainland to locate the enemy. Once there they encountered the large base camp and the walls surrounding it. It was clear no ships were going to sail out to meet them in battle. And so the Greeks touched down near by and disembarked, readying themselves for battle.

Seeing this army forming up near by, the Persian soldiers left their base and they too geared up for battle. Just as the Greeks were setting up their formations, word came that the battle of Plataea was a resounding success and that the Persian presence in Greece was rapidly dwindling. There was a sudden surge in Greek moral inspiring many and boosting their eagerness for the upcoming clash.

The stage was set and the armies had formed up. The allied forces of the Greeks numbered 3000 hoplites and 37,000 sailors/light infantry whereas the Persians numbered between 60,000-70,000 with the combined forces of Xerxes’ land army and the soldiers from the Persian navy. The Greeks formed 2 wings with the Athenians commanding the right wing, marching along side the shoreline and the Spartans leading the left wing further in land. The Persian army was in standard formation, stretching an even line across their base camp.

The Athenian wing was now visible to the Persians as they marched across level ground getting gradually closer. Meanwhile the Spartans decided to keep out of sight, instead travelling through the hills deeper in land with the hopes of performing a flanking manoeuvrer.

Seeing only the Athenian wing, the Achaemenid army advanced with confidence, assuming themselves to have greatly outnumbered their adversaries. Eager to win victory before the Spartans arrival, the Athenian wing engaged the Persian lines without hesitation, attacking more zealously than ever before. Shocked by this lashing, the Persians stood fast in order to hold the Greeks at bay. This worked for a while but the small force of hoplites in the Greek army once again proved the superiority of a strong formation and heavy armour against greater numbers and pushed them back, stabbing ferociously into the Persian lines with their spears.

The Persian lines began to waver and so they decided to fall back, regrouping inside the safety of their base camp. Or so they thought. The allied forces pushed on, breaking through the defences of this base and an enormous battle ensued within the walls. Around this time, the Spartan wing arrived. The Spartans made short work of the northern defences and tore through the base, cutting down all who stood in their way as they pushed towards their Athenian allies.

There were many Ionian contingents near by and within the camp itself. These men were the subjugated Greeks, whom had been forced into the service of the Achaemenid Empire. After witnessing what was happening these Ionian’s, seeing another chance to be rid of the Persians, rose up against their overlords! Taking up arms in yet another revolt the people of Samos and Ionia lashed out at the Persians, killing the soldiers who had occupied their homes for so many years.

The Persian army did not last long after this. The Athenian wing from the west, Spartans from the north and Ionian’s rising up all around them. The Persian army was decimated.

As the entirety of the Persian fleet was present at this base, the whole navy was destroyed. The Greeks burned every last ship as well as the base, tearing down the walls and looting all valuables. Vast quantities of treasure was taken from the base.

After the battle was over the remnants of the Achaemenid forces ran to the Persian city of Sardis having lost well over 40,000 troops. The Greek allies meanwhile sailed to the island of Samos to discuss their next move.

Mycale was, in many ways, the beginning of a new phase in the conflict, in which the Greeks would go on the offensive against the Persians. This phase tends to be referred to as the ‘Greek Counter Attack’. The immediate result of the victory at Mycale was a second revolt amongst the Greek cities of Asia Minor. The Ionian’s had actively fought against the Persians at Mycale, thus openly declaring their rebellion, and the other cities followed in their example.

It was decided that the allied navy would travel north to destroy the bridge at the Hellospont to prevent the Persian reinforcements they assumed Xerxes was preparing to send for continueing the invasion. However when they reached the area, it was soon realized that the bridge had already been dismantled. The great Achaemenid Empire, the largest in the world, had withdrawn from Greece.

With this discovery, Leotychidas decided it was time to sail back to Greece and took his part of the army home. Xanthippus and the Athenians on the other hand had resolved to cross over to Thrace and laid siege to Sestos which was the strongest fortress/city in the region.

The siege dragged on for several months, causing some discontent amongst the Athenian troops, but eventually, when the food ran out in the city, the Persians fled during the night. The Athenians were thus able to take possession of the city the next day in early 478 BC.

With this defeat, Persian influence along the Hellespont was significantly reduced. The Achaemenid Empire had been denied access to the Greek mainland, meanwhile Athenian trade to Black Sea ports had been restored. The Athenians, having pacified the region through this short campaign, then sailed back to Athens, taking the cables from the pontoon bridges with them as trophies.

Byzantium and the Greek Leagues’ divide

Later in the year 478 BC the Greeks sailed to the city of Byzantium. Not a great deal is known about the battle that took place and writings of it are limited, however what we do know for certain is that the battle and siege of Byzantium was the last major effort of the Persian Empire to retain control of Greece. A campaign was fought by the Greek allies (Hellenic League) under command of the Spartan Pausanias, in which the Persians were forced to surrender, causing the rapid loss of control in Thrace.

The capture of both Sestos and Byzantium gave the Greeks major command over the straits between Europe and Asia. This also gave them further access to trade in the Black Sea.

Once again details are scarce and it is unclear as to what exactly happened but there are writings that the Spartan leader Pausanias had become tyrannical. Some stating him to be violent and others that he had collaborated with the enemy. Whatever the case may be, he was sent back to Sparta and never again took up command of the allies.

After this the Spartans sent a small force to Byzantium in order to take command of the allied force. However, they found that the rest of the allies were no longer prepared to accept Spartan leadership, and therefore returned home.

With Byzantium taken, the Spartans were allegedly eager to end their involvement in the war. The Spartans were of the view that, with the liberation of mainland Greece and the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the war’s purpose had already been reached. With the Spartan withdrawal after Byzantium, the Athenians’ leadership of the Greek allies became explicit.

The loose alliance of city states that had initially joined together to fight against Xerxes’ invasion had been dominated by Sparta and their Peloponnesian League. With these states withdrawing, a congress was called on the island of Delos to institute a new alliance to continue the fight against the Persians. This was the beginning of the Athenian Alliance, commonly known as the Delian League.

With the establishment of the Delian League under Athens and the Spartans returning to the role of commanding the Peloponnesian League, the alliance between Sparta and Athens was at an end.

The Delian League would go on fighting the Achaemenid Empire for decades to come, winning and losing many battles in Ionia, Cyprus, Egypt and many other places. After one final great victory against the Persian navy and land army in the battles of Salamis in Cyprus which ended in 450 BC, hostilities between Greece and Persian ended. It is believed that some form of peace treaty was signed between the 2 due to the sudden withdrawal of Greek troops from Cyprus in 450 BC. In any case, by 449 BC peace had been reached, thus marking the end to the Greco-Persian conflicts.

With the abundance of new trade networks and many new tribute paying allies, a golden age for Athens was beginning. The foundations for the Athenian empire had been laid out and the Delian League finally had a complete victory. As previously stated, the Spartans had reformed the Peloponnesian League, establishing themselves as a great power in Greece and continued to play a major role whilst Athens continued to expand in power.

But with Athens and Sparta both growing and spreading their influence, it was only a matter of time before these 2 powers would come into opposition……

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